A few blocks down Conover Street from our NYC Ferry stop at Red Hook/Atlantic Basin, is a glass windowed industrial building with chickens in the courtyard and a delicious smell that reaches your nose as you enter the doorway. It’s the combination chocolate factory-whiskey distillery known as Cacao Prieto or Widow Jane Distillery. We sat down with Diana Marano, who we met during a street festival over the summer, to talk about the history of this Red Hook staple.
Marano lives in Rockaway Beach and will sometimes take NYC Ferry to work when she’s not traveling with her Shepherd-mix Loki. She used to work in corporate insurance for a large fast food chain, but got tired of the day-to-day same old office life and applied for an assistant position with a business owner on Craigslist located in Red Hook. Now no day is quite like the next at this small chocolate manufacturer and bourbon distillery.
Cacao Prieto was started by Daniel Prieto Preston, who, after getting burned out at his job as an aerospace engineer, went down to the Dominican Republic to help his family rejuvenate their cacao farm in 2010. Daniel was from Brooklyn and soon developed a way to essentially create a whole chocolate business in-house. The beans from his family’s cacao farm are roasted in-house, even the labels are printed on the office’s letter press and all artwork is designed by their Art Director and Operations Manager.
Preston started experimenting and producing a white rum which introduced him to the spirits business. He bought a property upstate that included the Widow Jane Limestone Mine where he began growing his own grain and distilling bourbon. Using the water from the limestone water from the mine made it comparable to Kentucky straight bourbons. All Widow Jane bourbon is single barrel aged and no barrel is reused so every batch is slightly unique. They have grown significantly over the the last five years, expanding nationally and internationally, while producing over 800 barrels of bourbon a year.
Widow Jane was relatively lucky when it came to Hurricane Sandy in 2012. They were “an island in the storm” according to Marano, with minimal damage to their basement and bar next door. However, Jillian Twyford, the company’s office and compliance manager, noticed that the Red Hook community really banded together after the storm. A lot of local businesses began looking for additional funding opportunities, to supplement the support they were getting from the City. Unfortunately there are still ongoing recovery efforts throughout the neighborhood.
That being said, Marano notices that Red Hook has gotten a lot more popular, especially in the summertime. “I see people from other neighborhoods coming in and seeing what Red Hook has to offer,” she says. There’s a great sense of community here. Widow Jane participates in many local festivals, like Red Hook Walks, Taste of Red Hook and they raise money annually for the You Gotta Believe Foundation. It’s a unique business community here with plenty of restaurants, shops, and wine bars. It’s also “that one weird little part of Brooklyn where there’s a lot of parking.”
Even with the excess parking, Marano notes that the ferry has really made this little nook, which is so hard to access by public transit, a much easier place for people from all over to explore. You can come take a tour of Cacao Prieto – Widow Jane any weekend at 12, 2, 4, & 6pm. It’s just a 7 minute walk from our Red Hook/Atlantic Basin stop on the South Brooklyn route.